How Effective & Efficient Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

How Effective & Efficient Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

By
Grace Smoot

Read Time:24 Minutes

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Nature-based carbon offsets are a method of carbon removal, whereby carbon dioxide (CO2) is incorporated into and stored within biomass. The effectiveness and efficiency of nature-based carbon offsets vary based on the specific type of offset. So, we had to ask: How effective and efficient are nature-based carbon offsets?

Nature-based offsets can effectively reinforce our carbon sinks, protect soil health, and help maintain biodiversity; they can efficiently and cost-effectively preserve existing ecosystems and continue to avoid carbon emissions after their project lifespan—depending on each specific project.

Keep reading to find out how efficient and effective nature-based carbon offsets are, how you can offset your carbon footprint with them, what their pros and cons are, how they can mitigate climate change, and what better alternatives to nature-based carbon offsets are. 

The Big Picture of the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere. They are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market.

Carbon offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

Carbon removal is the process of eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. It is also referred to as negative emissions or carbon drawdown.

Carbon Removal: the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Carbon removal can be split into 2 categories, technological and natural carbon removal.

  • Technological removal: This involves specialized technology that extracts carbon from the atmosphere. 
  • Natural removal: Also known as carbon sequestration. Carbon is stored naturally in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans, also referred to as our carbon sinks. 

Nature-based carbon offsets are those that focus on the long-term storage of captured or removed carbon in plants, soils, and the ocean, which are capable of absorbing massive amounts of our GHG emissions.

Carbon offsets that are commonly classified as nature-based carbon offsets include:

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of nature-based carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “What Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture
How Do Nature-Based Carbon Offsets WorkNature-based carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on the long-term storage of captured or removed carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean.
Nature-based carbon projects reduce CO2 emissions by supporting projects that reinforce our forest and marine carbon sinks, which are capable of absorbing massive amounts of our emissions.
How Effective Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets at Mitigating Climate ChangeNature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks
Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our marine carbon sinks
Nature-based carbon offsets protect soil health
Nature-based carbon offsets often lack permanence
Nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately
Nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
How Efficient Are Nature-Based Carbon Offset Programs at Reducing CO2 EmissionsNature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective
Nature-based carbon offsets can preserve existing forests and marine ecosystems
Nature-based carbon offsets can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after their project lifespan
Nature-based carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitations
Nature-based carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions

Here’s How Effective and Efficient Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Are

In terms of effectiveness, nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks and protect soil health; however, they can also lack permanence, may not reduce emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

In terms of efficiency, nature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective, can preserve existing forests and marine ecosystems, and can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after project lifespans; however, they also face carbon storage capacity limitations, and may not yet be scaled to compensate for our global emissions.

How Effective Are Nature-Based Carbon Offset Programs at Reducing CO2 Emissions

Effectiveness involves completing a task with a desired outcome, typically a successful one. 

Effective: producing the result that is wanted or intended; producing a successful result

Oxford Dictionary

Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks and protect soil health; however, they can also lack permanence, may not reduce emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Reinforce Our Terrestrial Carbon Sinks

Nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, and agriculture reinforce forests, which are one of our largest carbon sinks. 

Forests are capable of absorbing some of the roughly 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 that we emit every year from burning fossil fuels. This makes forests one of our biggest carbon sinks, or carbon reservoirs.

Carbon Sink: an area of forest that is large enough to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere and therefore to reduce the effect of global warming

Cambridge Dictionary 

Though, our forests absorbed over 15.6 bt of CO2 each year from 2001-2019, compared to the approximately 8.1 bt of CO2 released via deforestation, fires, and other disturbances. Still, this means that globally, forests act as a carbon sink capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year.

For example, China, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and Turkey have together planted 1.3 million hectares of forests as afforestation, with China increasing its forest cover from 12% to almost 22% since the birth of its Great Green Wall afforestation campaign in 1978. 

In addition, REDD+ offsets protect rainforests, including the Amazon Rainforest. The Amazon Basin contains roughly 2.8 million square miles of rainforest, which is estimated to store roughly 123 billion tons of carbon above and below ground. 

In short, reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, and agricultural offsets bolster our forest communities, which are one of our biggest carbon sinks capable of absorbing billions of tons of CO2 every year. 

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Reinforce Our Marine Carbon Sinks

Nature-based offsets involving blue carbon reinforce coastal and marine ecosystems, which are one of our largest carbon sinks. 

Blue carbon is one example of biological carbon sequestration, or the storage of carbon in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans, which are commonly referred to as our carbon sinks. Blue carbon ecosystems can permanently store carbon at depths of up to 6 meters for up to 1,000 years.

Blue carbon ecosystems can also sequester carbon at higher rates per unit area than terrestrial ecosystems. Mangroves and salt marshes can absorb 3-5x more carbon per acre (ac) than tropical forests at a rate 10 times greater, and seagrass meadows store 11% of the ocean’s buried carbon despite only accounting for only 0.1% of the world’s seafloor. 

If undisturbed, blue carbon ecosystems can absorb enough carbon to keep pace with moderate sea level rise. In the top meter of soil alone, mangroves can store an average of 1,494 tons of CO2 per hectare (ha), seagrass meadows 951, and tidal marshes 607. But the real carbon storage potential is underground, with 50–99% of the carbon stored in blue ecosystems located in the soil underground

Deforesting mangroves or draining wetlands significantly impacts climate change because it results in the loss of stored carbon in biomass plus the active re-emission of carbon stored deep in the soil. It is estimated that the degradation or conversion of these ecosystems releases between 0.15 and 1.02 billion tons of CO2 annually.

In short, nature-based, blue carbon offsets reinforce marine and coastal ecosystems, which are some of our biggest carbon sinks capable of absorbing billions of metric tons of CO2 every year. 

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Protect Soil Health

Nature-based offsets involving agriculture (e.g., biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion) can improve soil structure and nutrient cycling. 

Biochar is commonly used as a fertilizer because it breaks down slower than traditional animal manure. Studies have shown that biochar can enhance agricultural productivity and soil sustainability by improving soil structure, soil water-holding capacity, and nutrient cycling. Its ability to persist longer in soils also leads to decreased erosion and reduced runoff. 

Some agroforestry practices, such as planting trees amongst crops or grazing fields, can also improve soil health. Trees cycle nutrients, allowing animals and fungi who live in the soil to flourish. Tree roots also bind soil in place, leading to reduced erosion and increased water filtration.

Lastly, avoided grassland conversion projects protect grassland biomes, which are commonly turned into cropland or grazing lands. Temperate grasslands, in particular, are known to have dark, fertile, nutrient-rich soils due to the decay of branched, grass roots. When grasslands become degraded, the soils re-emit carbon which is converted to CO2 in the atmosphere. 

In short, nature-based, agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion can enhance or protect soil health.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Often Lack Permanence 

Nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture often lack permanence because they are reversible solutions. 

Reforestation carbon offset projects also must be permanent, in the sense that there must be a full guarantee against reversals of carbon emission for the foreseeable future. 

However, nature-based solutions such as reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture often lack permanence because they are reversible

Rather than storing the carbon in permanent reservoirs (i.e., underground in rock formations), carbon is stored in biomass (trees, seagrass, salt marshes). Once vegetation is planted, it should never be removed in order to guarantee permanence. But trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence. 

For example, climate change is one of the leading factors that can negate blue carbon permanence. Coastal ecosystems are especially sensitive to sea level rise, storm intensity, and rising ocean temperatures, all of which have been occurring at an accelerated rate. Blue carbon ecosystems are currently being degraded at 4 times the rate of tropical forests. We are currently losing mangroves, seagrasses, and tidal marshes at a rate of 2%, 1.5%, and 1-2% per year, respectively.

In short, nature-based solutions such as reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture can lack permanence because they are reversible.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets May Not Reduce Carbon Emissions Immediately

Nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, blue carbon, and agriculture may not reduce carbon emissions immediately because of the time needed to plant trees and for them to reach maturity. 

Carbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions at a steady rate. All trees mature at different rates, but a typical hardwood tree takes around 20 years to reach maturity

Although they can absorb carbon as soon as they are planted, it can take decades until a tree is able to absorb the average 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year. This means we must also wait decades after planting the tree to begin to reap most of the environmental benefits provided by reforestation, afforestation, mangrove planting, and agroforestry projects. 

Creating new forests is also more time-intensive than protecting existing forests because finding suitable land and physically planting the trees to create a new forest takes time. Also, there is always the risk of, e.g., droughts, wildfires, tree diseases, and deforestation wiping out newly planted trees, negating any carbon reduction benefits. 

In contrast, REDD+ projects and blue carbon offset projects that protect existing mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes reduce emissions immediately because you are protecting existing vegetation rather than creating new vegetation.

In short, reforestation, afforestation, blue carbon, and agricultural tree planting projects do not reduce carbon emissions immediately because trees must first reach maturity before they can begin reducing emissions.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Your Own Carbon Emissions

Nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing. 

One of the main limitations of carbon offsetting, in general, is that purchasing a carbon offset does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. It only makes others reduce their carbon footprint to compensate for your carbon footprint. 

If emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. Companies accused of greenwashing either invest in non-verified credits, do not prioritize in-house emissions reductions, or double-count carbon credits. Or sometimes, all of the above.

In short, because nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own emissions, they could lead to greenwashing.

How Efficient Are Nature-Based Carbon Offset Programs at Mitigating Climate Change

Efficiency involves performing a task while using the least amount of resources and producing the least amount of waste as possible.

Efficient: working in a way that does not waste a resource (= something valuable such as fuel, water, or money)

Cambridge Dictionary

Nature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective, can preserve existing forests and marine ecosystems, and can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after project lifespans; however, they also face carbon storage capacity limitations, and may not yet be scaled to compensate for our global emissions.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Are Relatively Cost-Effective

Nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are some of the most cost-effective methods of carbon emission reduction. 

In general, combating deforestation is an expensive process. But coupling reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agricultural projects with carbon offsets could help finance this process Especially since these offsets are typically more cost-effective than other categories of offsets. 

In short, nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Preserve Existing Forests And Marine Ecosystems

Nature-based offsets involving REDD+ and blue carbon can efficiently protect existing forests and marine ecosystems.

REDD+ offsets chiefly protect existing forests from deforestation, rather than creating new forests first and then protecting those forests. Protecting existing forests rather than creating new ones is more time effective because finding suitable land and physically planting the trees to create a new forest takes time. Carbon emissions can also be reduced immediately when you protect existing forests, whereas creating new forests requires waiting for the trees to first reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions.

In addition, blue carbon offsets can protect existing mangroves, seagrass beds, and salt marsh ecosystems. Blue carbon ecosystems sequester carbon at higher rates per unit area than terrestrial ecosystems. Mangroves and salt marshes can absorb 3-5x more carbon per acre (ac) than tropical forests at a rate 10 times greater, and seagrass meadows store 11% of the ocean’s buried carbon despite only accounting for only 0.1% of the world’s seafloor. If undisturbed, blue carbon ecosystems can absorb enough carbon to keep pace with moderate sea level rise

In short, REDD+ and blue carbon offsets protect existing forests and marine ecosystems, which are time and cost-effective methods of carbon emission reduction. 

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Can Continue To Avoid CO2 Emissions After Their Project Life Span

Nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, and blue carbon offsets can continue to reduce carbon long after projects have been completed.

Carbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions. However, trees continue absorbing carbon long after they mature. This means that tree planting projects (e.g., reforestation, afforestation, blue carbon) can continue to reduce carbon emissions long after the trees have been planted.

The ability of these offsets to continue to reduce carbon after the project has been completed is dependent on the continued protection of the forest. Reforestation, afforestation, and blue carbon offsets do not necessarily protect trees after they have been planted, whereas REDD+ carbon offsets are more concerned with protecting already existing forests. So, any future carbon reductions could be negated if the trees are deforested before they die naturally

However, at some point, carbon storage in trees is balanced by the release of carbon back into the atmosphere via wood and leaf decay, insect and animal consumption, and overall tree respiration. As they mature, forests go from being carbon-negative, to carbon-neutral, and even carbon-positive, if they are destroyed.

In short, reforestation, afforestation, and blue carbon offsets can continue to reduce carbon long after the project has been completed, so long as they are not deforested prematurely.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Face Carbon Storage Capacity Limitations

Carbon storage capacity limitations prevent nature-based offset efforts from being scalable enough to compensate for all of our carbon emissions.

Reforestation, afforestation, mangrove-planting blue carbon, and agroforestry efforts are all limited by trees’ carbon storage capacity. 

How much carbon a tree can store, or its carbon storage capacity, is dependent on the type of tree and a host of environmental factors, but typical trees can absorb anywhere from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year.

If we use an average of 40 pounds of carbon absorbed, we would need to plant more than 200 billion trees every year to compensate for all of our emissions. A number that is far away from the about 1.9 billion trees currently planted every year

For example, our overall reforestation potential is limited by the number of forests that are in need of reforestation. Globally, our forests absorbed over 15.6 billion tons (bt) of CO2 each year from 2001-2019, and the world has lost 1/3 of its forests since the last ice age. This means that 15.6 represents 2/3 of our global forest potential (when it only comes to reforestation). 

In total, the global reforestation potential would be at 7.8bt of CO2 per year. Even if fully utilized, this is only a fraction of the 33bt of CO2 emissions that we’d need to offset per year.

In addition, biochar agricultural practices face carbon storage capacity limitations in regard to soil. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global soil carbon sequestration could mitigate up to about 5.3 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2030. However, for as much as our soils can store CO2, too much can have adverse effects. 

Studies have shown that too much CO2 in the soil can have negative effects on root water absorption, chlorophyll, starch content, and total biomass. So although the upper limit of soil carbon sequestration is relatively unknown, soil CO2 saturation can become an issue before the upper limit is even reached. This means biochar can only store a finite amount of CO2 in our soils. 

In short, tree and soil carbon storage capacity limitations prevent nature-based offsets from compensating for all of our carbon emissions.

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets May Not Yet Be Scaled To Compensate For Our Global Emissions

Nature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are not yet scaled to compensate for the billions of tons of GHG we emit annually.

Carbon offsets in general are currently not sufficient to compensate for all of our carbon emissions. We emit more than 37 billion tons of carbon annually, but carbon offset credits for only ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the voluntary market. The number of sellers also exceeds the number of buyers by about 600-700 million tons

Currently, reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agricultural offsets are also not scaled enough to keep pace with our global carbon emissions. 

Reforestation, afforestation, mangrove-planting blue carbon, and agroforestry practices are limited by carbon storage capacity. If we take an average of 40 pounds of carbon absorbed, we would need to plant more than 200 billion trees every year to compensate for all of our emissions. A number that is far away from the about 1.9 billion trees currently planted every year

Although blue carbon ecosystems are capable of providing 1/3 of the total emissions reductions needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, they only receive 3% of total climate investments globally. As more blue carbon methodologies are established, experts expect monetization of coastal wetland conservation and restoration activities to increase

Experts also predict the world’s population will increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years. More people means more mouths to feed; therefore, agriculture production and subsequent GHG emissions from agriculture will continue to increase. We already emit approximately 570 million tons of CH4, a significant amount of which comes from agriculture. 

In short, nature-based carbon offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are not yet scaled to keep pace with our global carbon emissions due to various barriers. 

How Could You Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide. The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions. 

The Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM can grow to $50B by the year 2050. And because nature-based offsets can be effective and efficient at reducing carbon emissions, they are predicted to make up an increasingly larger share of this market.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best nature-based carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best Carbon Nature-Based Carbon Offsets
Nature-Based Carbon Offset CompanyQuick Facts
The Arbor Day FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation (and reforestation) projects in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (US), Nicaragua, and Peru.
Costs: $40 per 1,000kg of CO2
REDD.plusAbout: Carbon offset purchases support UNFCCC-verified REDD+ projects around the globe. REDD.plus is a central registry and exchange for REDD+ Result Units, a type of carbon credit. 
Costs: $16 per ton of CO2 
SeaTreesAbout: Carbon offset purchases support coral reef/kelp forest/watershed restoration as well as mangrove tree planting.
Costs: $22 per 1,000kg of CO2
HuskAbout: Husk converts rice husks into biochar, fertilizers, and biopesticides via smokeless pyrolysis, preventing the re-emission of carbon into the atmosphere. 
Costs: Husk uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit Patch’s website to learn more about pricing. 
EcologiAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation/afforestation carbon offset projects including those in Madagascar, Mozambique, Bolivia, Morocco, Senegal, and Uruguay.
Costs: $6.04 per 1,000 kg of CO2 offset
One Tree PlantedAbout: Carbon offset purchases support reforestation/afforestation projects including those in the US, Romania, Iceland, and Africa.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
The Ocean FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support the SeaGrass Grow, seagrass planting project.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
Wildlife WorksAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified carbon offset projects including The Kasigau Corridor, Mai Ndombe, and Southern Cardamom REDD+ projects in Kenya, Cambodia, and Colombia respectively.
Costs: $20 per ton of CO2
Vi AgroforestryAbout: Vi Agroforestry specializes in poverty reduction and environmental improvement through agroforestry and improved farming practices. 
Costs: $28 per 1,000kg of CO2 offset
CarbofexAbout: Carbofex’s pyrolysis technology takes waste biomass from urban or agricultural sources and turns it into biochar, which can then be used to enhance agricultural soils or to produce renewable energy.
Costs: Carbofex uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit the Puro.earth website to learn more about their respective pricing.
TerrapassAbout: Carbon offset purchases support the reforestation, afforestation, and REDD+ projects in Peru, Canada, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the US.
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2

What Are The 6 Pros and 6 Cons of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Nature-based carbon offsets are a cost-effective method to reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks, protect soil health, preserve biodiversity, and help maintain the water cycle. These offsets also allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

However, nature-based offsets can also lack permanence and additionality, face carbon storage capacity limitations, may not yet be scaled to compensate for our global emissions, and may not reduce carbon emissions immediately. They also do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of nature-based carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Nature-Based Carbon Offsets: All 6 Pros and 6 Cons Explained

What Are the 6 Pros of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Nature-based carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at reducing carbon emissions.

6 Pros of Nature-Based Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinksNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, and agriculture reinforce forests, which are one of our largest carbon sinks. 
#2: Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our marine carbon sinksNature-based offsets involving blue carbon reinforce coastal and marine ecosystems, which are one of our largest carbon sinks.
#3: Nature-based carbon offsets protect soil healthNature-based offsets involving agriculture (e.g., biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion) can improve soil structure and nutrient cycling. 
#4: Nature-based carbon offsets preserve biodiversity and help maintain the water cycleNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture preserve biodiversity, which in turn helps maintain clean water, air, and a healthy food supply.
#5: Nature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effectiveNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are some of the most cost-effective methods of carbon emission reduction. 
#6: Nature-based carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyNature-based offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 6 Cons of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of nature-based offsets is important in order to effectively mitigate climate change.

6 Cons of Nature-Based Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Nature-based carbon offsets often lack permanenceNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture often lack permanence because they are reversible solutions.
#2: Nature-based carbon offsets can lack additionality Nature-based offsets involving REDD+ often lack additionality because what would have happened without REDD+ intervention cannot be measured exactly.
#3: Nature-based carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitationsCarbon storage capacity limitations prevent nature-based offset efforts from being scalable enough to compensate for all of our carbon emissions.
#4: Nature-based carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissionsNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are not yet scaled to compensate for the billions of tons of GHG we emit annually. 
#5: Nature-based carbon offsets may not reduce carbon emissions immediatelyNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, blue carbon, and agriculture may not reduce carbon emissions immediately because of the time needed to plant trees and for them to reach maturity. 
#6: Nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingNature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing. 

How Can Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Nature-based carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change because they eliminate fossil-fuel-derived carbon from our atmosphere which, if left untreated, can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.

Oxford Dictionary

Atmospheric CO2 fuels climate change, which results in global warming. When CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, they trap the heat and act as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050

How Do Carbon Offsets Generally Help Mitigate Climate Change

Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon offsets can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon offsets that meet key criteria and verified project standards, are additional and permanent, and are part of projects that are carried out until the end of their lifespan have the best chance of reducing carbon emissions and therefore reducing climate change. 

When we offset CO2 we also slow the rate of global temperature rise, which in turn minimizes the effects of climate change. 

How Do Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Nature-based solutions in general can specifically help mitigate climate change because they eliminate atmospheric carbon, which when emitted, can remain in our atmosphere for a long period of time

Reforestation, afforestation, and REDD+ offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they plant more trees, and trees remove CO2 from the air as they grow. By increasing the number of trees on our planet, we increase the amount of carbon they are capable of storing. The more carbon our forests can sequester, the less carbon there is in our atmosphere. 

Blue carbon offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they protect coastal and marine ecosystems, which are capable of absorbing more CO2 per acre than rainforests and at a rate 10x greater. 

Agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion can specifically help mitigate climate change because they reduce CO2 emissions in one of the biggest industries worldwide.

What Are Better Alternatives to Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, nature-based carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Nature-based carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures to reduce carbon emissions for the long term. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because nature-based offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to nature-based offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

Final Thoughts

Nature-based carbon offsets face varying levels of effectiveness and efficiency depending on the type of offset.

Reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agricultural carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks and are relatively cost-effective; however, they may not reduce emissions immediately. Overall, nature based offsets may lack permanence and can face carbon storage capacity limitations. 

Carbon offsets can instigate meaningful change, but they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. When used in conjunction with direct CO2 reduction measures, carbon offsetting can be much more effective. We should reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective nature-based carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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